By Dave Kindred
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I have never written anything more true than this book. I also have never written anything in which I was less certain of the facts. For reasons made clear in the text, the book’s primary on-the-road characters are unreliable narrators. To give their stories clarity and coherence, I have reported names, dates, places, and events as best I could determine them. It was more important to me that the characters told the truth as they knew it. That, I believe, they did.
This is a story about a boy I knew from the week of his birth and a young man I never knew at all. The boy was my grandson, Jared Glenn Kindred, and the young man was Goblin. That was Jared’s road name, Goblin. He lived on the street until he learned to hop freight trains and then he lived on the road. He was one of those wanderers whose lives are a mystery and a bafflement, an undoable jigsaw puzzle. To find the light in that darkness, the storyteller goes in search of those who knew Jared who became Goblin. The storyteller who is also the grandfather then writes it truly. He writes it with tears and compassion and laughter. He writes that every time he talked to Jared who became Goblin he ended the conversation saying, “Love you, boy,” and every time the grandson said, “Love you too.”
Jared was born December 8, 1988, delivered three minutes before his brother, Jacob, fraternal twins, one weighing five pounds, the other five pounds, one ounce. The week before Christmas, I saw the boys in a braided-twig basket, Jared on the left, Jacob on the right. My wife, Cheryl, lifted them out of the basket and placed them in my hands. They stretched from my palms to halfway up my forearms. I wanted to remember how tiny they were. To me, at last, the birth of a child was amazing, a miracle, twice a miracle, Jared and Jacob. To see them was to remember the birth of my son, their father, Jeff. I remembered my wife in labor for hours, begging me to rub her back and, every time I rubbed her back, screaming, “Don’t touch me!”
At the birth of our son I was twenty-two and knew nothing. My memory of his birth is a blur of school, job, marriage, the baby’s coming, the screaming, and then we went back to work. Cheryl was a day-shift nurse. I was a sportswriter working days, nights, and weekends because, when you’re young and hungry and tireless, all you want to do is work and get to where you want to be. Where I wanted to be was not in a labor room with the screaming. I wanted to be out making the future happen. I was a kid myself, and I didn’t know the future was happening in that labor room, our son being born.
Then, suddenly, I was forty-seven years old. And our son was a father, and he knew what was happening even if I never knew. Jeff held the twins in his arms and called them “Jake and Jed, my country boys.” He looked into the camera, and I’d never seen a prouder dad. Had I ever held our son in my arms and had a picture made? I could search in drawers and boxes and maybe I’d find a picture, but that wouldn’t count, because it would mean I didn’t remember and the picture must not have meant much to me when it was taken.
I made a fool of myself in love with the grandsons, and I figured I did that because I didn’t do it for my son and here was a second chance. Maybe I could show love now and my son would notice and be happy that I’m his dad loving his boys the way I never loved him. Or maybe it would remind him how much he resented the absence of that love. Who knows? We’re all guessing. My guess is my son saw in my love of the grandsons a love he never saw for him and somewhere in him there is a mournful bell tolling for the absence of his father’s love and that bell never goes quiet.
So I’m the storyteller writing this book about Jared who became Goblin. In every book like this, where the storyteller is lost in the dark and looking for the light, people hearing the story want to know how a father’s son and a grandfather’s grandson goes to live on the street, where he drinks and finds a way to hop trains across America, where he drinks more. People hearing the story want to know how it happened and why, and the best the storyteller can do is to do what he does, which is find those who knew him, the road dogs who traveled with Goblin, and listen to what they say and how they say it.
Jared’s journey put him in a small circle of twenty-first-century hoboes who call themselves “travelin’ kids.” A buddy of his called their world “an underbelly of America that most people don’t even know exists.” They get where they’re going by any means available. They walk, they hitchhike, they “ride the dog” (a Greyhound bus). Most often, they clamber onto freight trains, which is illegal, dangerous, and, once done, apparently irresistible. In five years, Jared rode trains twenty-five thousand miles.
A line tracing Jared’s travels moves through Virginia and the Carolinas into Florida and along the Gulf. It runs to California and back, up to Tennessee, Ohio, and Pennsylvania before turning north to Vermont and south through Massachusetts to New York. He called from Richmond and San Diego, from Boston, Chicago, and Ocala. He loved New Orleans. He paraded in the French Quarter and drank on a Mississippi River wharf by the Café du Monde. There he sang with a crew he named the Scurvy Bastards, raggedy-ass mischief-makers who in another time might have been prankster pirates coming ashore from the Caribbean. He called to say hi or to chatter about his latest adventure. Naked girls, Grandpa, and they’re running through the forest, naked. He taught me how easy it was for a grandpa to wire cash from Western Union. I need a Megabus ticket from Albany to the city, $19 is all. The world of travelin’ kids is at once small and unlimited. There may be only a couple hundred of them, no one knows, maybe a thousand, no one cares enough to count them. They live inside no boundaries. Wherever they are, that’s where they want to be.
I’m writing in the service of a storyteller’s passion, which is always the same—find a good story and tell it well. I have told a thousand stories about other people, and those were easy because everything could be made to make sense. But when it’s the storyteller’s life and his son’s life and his grandson’s, it’s complicated in ways unimagined and in ways that no one can know until they are lost in the dark groping for a way out of the confusion. Still, the storyteller tries to tell it real and true and the best he can because, for him if for no one else, there was a need to know what happened out there. I had to know what happened. I loved the boy Jared who became the man Goblin who created a life unlike any life most of us will ever know or want to know, a wanderer’s life, not homeless, for he had homes where he was loved, but a wanderer who slept on sidewalks and under bridges and along railroad tracks behind the Jax Brewery in New Orleans. I had to know what happened. I had loved the child Jared, and when he slept in my bed I told him sleepy-time stories. I did it because I hoped that someday he would talk to me about anything and everything in ways my son had never talked to me, and in ways I had never talked to my father.
Then I lost sight of Jared. Our time together had been counted in hours; it became minutes. Once upon a time, he would not shut up; then, silence. Soon enough he became a stranger, still beloved but a stranger, and then he was gone, and I asked what I might have done to hold him close and, before him, to hold my son close. I asked, what if I’d done this, what if I’d said that, a thousand what-ifs, all with unknowable answers. As best I could do it, I had to find out what happened. It’s not that I wanted anyone to forgive me. I wanted to forgive myself for not recognizing Jared’s pain, not knowing how to help him. Maybe if I could connect the dots and find more dots and connect them all, maybe we would be together again, grandson and grandfather. Could this little book that we’ve done together, the boy’s voice here, his friends telling their Goblin stories, the beautiful ones and the heartbreaking ones, could it bring us together again? I had to know.
There was a time in the sadness that I had dreams, four dreams in a month. In one I am a major league baseball player. I am getting on the team bus for a ride to Yankee Stadium. But I have forgotten my glove. I return to the clubhouse for the glove and reboard the bus. Only now it’s a city bus and it’s not going to Yankee Stadium. It’s wandering through Manhattan, across a river and into Brooklyn, where I get off the bus and stand behind a chain-link fence. I am watching kids hitting dirty baseballs on a muddy vacant lot covered by rocks. They invite me to play. But I don’t have a glove. Now I have left it on the bus. “Somebody,” I say, “take me to Yankee Stadium,” and a tall, skeletal, gray-bearded man wearing catcher’s shin guards says, “Get in that taxi.” I tell the driver, “I gotta get to Yankee Stadium.” The driver is the movie star Meg Ryan. She has a notebook and seems to be a reporter, and I say, “You want a good story? Today’s my major league debut and I will not get a single to right field because I am here in Brooklyn.” And Meg Ryan says, “Where’s your glove?”
In other dreams I lose a golf bag and a laptop, and in one I am lost on the ground floor of a vast, derelict building with slivers of light streaming through the ceiling. It seems to be an abandoned steel foundry. I walk up one of its steel-mesh stairways that casts spiderweb shadows, and I open a giant door and I am blinded by light. I’m now in a church. It’s an Anglican church with British people in the pews. They see me and they draw in their breath at the sight of a grimy intruder at their very proper church service. I wonder why I’m there.
I told people about the dreams, and a friend said the dreams were about loss, the loss of things, the losses signifying the loss of Jared. There were more dreams too, and they all had me groping in the darkness, afraid, anxious, unable to do what I needed to do, unable to do what I’d done forever. I came to understand that those dreams were not about loss. They were about the emptiness that follows loss, the paralyzing emptiness of despair.
Someone asked, why tell Jared’s story? Why go into the dark, why not grieve and move on? Why write a story that has no answers but only pain and more questions? One answer is, it’s a good story. There is that. There is also the friend who said, “You have to tell Jared’s story. You have to tell it for him and for yourself. Keep him alive in your heart. Tell his story for his parents, for Jacob, and for all the other kids out there like him. All your love and concern couldn’t save Jared, but you might just be able to save some of them traveling the same road. All those kids whose wiring and biochemistry make it impossible to accept the help they need. Tell Jared’s story.”
I found one of Jared’s road dogs, a brute of a girl called Aggro. She talked and I listened to the music in her story, music that Jared would have heard. She said:
Sometimes the best medicine for whatever’s bothering us is not a shot or a beer but just taking a ride. Saying, “Fuck it,” and jumping on the next thing smoking, no matter which way it’s headed. Just sitting back and listening to the wheels clack over the ties, feeling the wind and sunshine on your face, smelling the countryside, rocking with the smooth sway of the train. As the miles roll away, so does all that pain, all that worry and melancholy, and it’s replaced by such peace that the only explanation can be is that it’s from God. That’s why I ride trains. For peace of mind that can be found nowhere else. It’s like trains take care of us. They rock us to sleep at night, keep us cool on a hot day, sing to us when we’re feeling down. Some nights you’re rolled out in a field and you hear that train horn in the distance, that lonesome whistle blowing. And you go, “I hear you, baby. I miss you too.”
I found a picture too. It’s a picture of Goblin and his road dog Booze Cop. They are all grime and tattoos, travelin’ kids looking into the camera lens, Booze Cop bare-chested in a ball cap with a bandanna around his neck, an arm draped over Goblin’s shoulders. I asked Booze Cop about that picture and he said:
We took this picture on Decatur Street in New Orleans. Goblin musta found that straw hat alongside the road. Not easy to remember what happens in New Orleans, easy to get drunk in that town. Goblin looks like a farmer, the bibs, that hat. You’re asking what people would think seeing us? They’d be like, “Get outta here, scum.” I look at that picture and I’m going, “My little brother! Havin’ a good time.”
I am a grandfather telling a story about his grandson, and I look at that picture of Goblin and Booze Cop and I think: Look at them. Look past the dirt and the tattoos, and look past the scars of their lives, those real and those no less real for being unseen. Look again. See them. Really see them. They are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our grandchildren. They are us…
I had to know what happened. As a boy, Jared had lived with us. Goblin, I saw only once and only late in his story. I wanted to fill the emptiness of loss with a story about the love that comes before loss and lives in me yet.
I began this story with a name, and not even a name but a nickname. I heard about a girl who called herself Stray. She had been with Jared on his first train-hopping ride. Doing a reporter’s work—rummaging through social media, following threads there, making phone calls—I found her. We talked, texted, and connected on Facebook. To talk with Stray was to know that Jared’s story best starts with the adventure, the romance, the light. It starts in front of a drugstore in San Diego, California, in August 2010.
Stray was a wandering waif in patched denims. She needed a drink, so she went to a place where she knew others of her kind would share a half-gallon. She sat in the afternoon sun at that CVS when here came a little guy with a sweetheart’s baby face. She noted with respect and admiration that her beautiful hero carried a brown paper bag of the kind you take away from a liquor store. He was in no hurry, shambling up, sure of himself. He wore combat boots with no laces and brown Carhartt bib overalls blackened by railroad grease and made filthy by nights in America’s dirt. The Carhartts hung loose on his frame, no shirt, his shoulders summer-tan. His blond hair went several directions at once. His wide-open eyes were round and blue and alive and kind.
By way of introduction, he said, “I’m Jared Kindred.”
“I’m Stray Falldowngoboom,” she said.
Jared laughed. “Really?”
“I’m a stray cat. And when I get drunk, I fall down, go boom. Call me Stray.”
“Cool,” he said. “I’m Goblin.”
Goblin was twenty-one years old. He had a home, but he had chosen to be homeless, unwashed, unshaven, stinking to high heaven, and broke. He had a red scruff of beard and a crude facial tattoo of dark blue lines that began on his forehead and curled around a cheekbone before ending on the bridge of his nose. He became Goblin the night he sat with a buddy called Booze Cop in a high-dollar mall and panhandled for change. They “flew sign,” meaning they held aloft a piece of cardboard with a message. This one, printed with a black Sharpie, read:
“People look at me like I’m some spooky creature,” he said to Booze Cop, and Booze Cop said, “Like a goblin or something.”
Stray was tiny, seventeen years old, pale and freckled with blue eyes and rust-red dreads. The day before, she’d gotten sideways with railroad police in Cheyenne Wells, Colorado. They plucked her off a train’s coal car, clicked handcuffs on her, and put her on a plane to San Diego. They did that on the notion that the girl’s parents, sobbing and grateful, would take the poor child back home and clutch her to their bosoms. The police didn’t know that her parents were long divorced and she lived with her mother, who let her quit school in the sixth grade and do whatever made her happy, which in Stray’s case meant she was free to wander.
So the mother was fine with her daughter hanging out in San Diego. From there Stray planned to get to Colton, the biggest railroad junction in Southern California, and hop out on the first train she could catch. Waiting at the CVS, Stray told the kid with the brown paper bag, “I’ve been dealing with weird-ass foster cares in the sticks and cornfields and jail under the sheriff’s house in Bumfuck, Colorado.”
Jared said, “Need a drink?”
The kid with the homeless, happy, thirsty look said, “Damn right.” And she said, “Hellacious tattoo.”
“Mom hates it.”
“Don’t they always?”
He’d flown to San Diego because of the tattoo. On August 3, 2009, his mother, Lynn Ann Sigda Kindred, had called me, the grandfather, sobbing.
She managed to say, “Jared has done the one thing I asked him to never do.”
The anguish in Lynn’s voice had been frightening. I said, “What happened?” What had he done? Arson, a bank robbery, a car theft, what?
“He has tattooed his face.”
Her beautiful child’s baby face.
She said, “Hell, I’ve got tattoos, so I don’t mind tattoos.”
“But his face.”
We could laugh about the time Jared went all punk Mohawk, his hair spiked and dyed purple, green, and blue. Teenagers want attention. This was different in degree and kind. The most generous interpretation of a facial tattoo makes it an assertion of individuality and commitment to an artist’s aesthetic judgment. Jared’s was a fuck-you to the world he would leave and a passport to the world he would enter.
Alcohol was involved when a friend, Craig AntiHero, did the tattoo. Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, may have paid thousands of dollars for a Maori tribal facial tattoo that was a precisely executed work of art. Not Jared. He allowed a buddy off the street to use his face for the first tattoo he had ever done. Craig did what poor folks call “a stick-and-poke.” His tools were primitive: a sewing needle dipped in India ink and lashed to a toothbrush, a contraption powered by a small motor removed from a radio-controlled car.
“We had no design in mind,” Craig said. “We had a motel room, and I did it there freehand with Jared checking it in a mirror.”
The tattoo was fresh in Lynn’s mind a year later when Jared told her he planned to go from Virginia to San Diego. A girlfriend had left him, and he was pursuing her.
“Who’s driving?” Lynn said.
“No, no, nooo,” Lynn said. “If you drive across the country with that guy, you’ll wind up with tattoos up the yin-yang.”
Lynn knew that inside the travelin’ kid culture was a clique of tattooed and pierced punk-rockers. The “crusty punks” changed clothes and bathed on an irregular basis, and then only under duress. The final certification of authentic crustiness was a facial tattoo. Jared had gone all in. He was still her child, still Jared under those marks, but her sorrow was in realizing what the ink meant. There was no coming back.
Still, Lynn told me, damned if she would let Jared go three thousand miles in a car with an amateur tattoo artist.
I asked, “What can I do?”
“An airplane ticket?” she said.
And so Jared, having changed from civilian traveling clothes into his travelin’ kid’s greasy stuff, came to meet Stray Falldowngoboom in front of that CVS. Because he had wandered enough to know what a wandering waif wants, Jared dropped a hand into that brown paper bag and with a flourish brought forth a half-gallon jug of Old Crow.
Stray said, “Exactly what I was trying to get into for the night.”
As unlikely as it was that either Jared or Stray had read On the Road, they must have felt what Jack Kerouac felt when his man Dean Moriarty slid behind the wheel of their car and gunned the engine: “We all realized,” Kerouac wrote, “we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.” Here Jared had a proposition for Stray.
“I want to get to New Orleans for Halloween,” he said. “Want to go?”
Suddenly in from Colorado, Stray had no plans other than the usual wanderer’s plan of seeing what might happen next. She said, “I’m ready. Let’s hit it.”
He said, “How we getting there?”
“Colton yard.” Biggest in California, one of the biggest anywhere, the starting point for every train rolling east.
Jared said, “What’s Colton?”
She didn’t laugh. Anybody who’d ask that question was new to the life. She said, “You’ve never caught out?”
Silent, Goblin sipped at the bourbon, and Stray knew he’d never hopped on a train. Last thing she needed was a newbie. Newbies do foolish things, and foolish things can get you killed on a freight train. But she liked him. She asked about the necklace he wore. Sharks’ teeth, he said, put together by his mother, a good-luck thing. Stray liked it and liked his blue eyes and the bird’s-nest mess of dirty-blond hair. He had moxie and independence, or else he’d have never let somebody do a tattoo that he knew his mother would hate. Nor was it a small thing that this sweetheart had walked up on her with a half-gallon of Old Crow.
Now, in San Diego, chasing a girl who had bailed on him, Goblin had found another, this Stray, a train-hopper.
“I’m ready to try,” he said.
“New Orleans, Louisiana—NOLA—Halloween, here we come,” Stray said. “Cemeteries above the ground, all that scary voodoo shit, and drinking by the Mississippi. Forget the bitch here, you’ll find a better one there. We got two months to get there. Listen to me. Riding ain’t that hard. Just do what I do. Only rule is, don’t do anything stupid. Stupid gets you killed. Fall off, best case is you lose an arm or leg. Worst case, you’re hamburger.”
Together, Stray and Goblin would move two thousand miles in two months, on railroad tracks zigzagging from Southern California to New Orleans. It’s not like a storyteller can vouch for it all in the sense of saying, “Damn right, nothing but the God’s honest truth.” But the way Stray told it, the journey was good and fun, and if it’s true that she painted from a full palette of wanderers’ glory, so much the better.
Jared and I would ride together. It was August, so we had two months to get to New Orleans for Halloween. We’d pass through California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana—you can’t believe the shit we saw and did. First thing was a bus from the CVS to Perris.
In the little California town of Perris, on a dusty street in a Mexican barrio, Goblin and Stray watched fights matching people against dogs tethered to heavy chains. Then a midget and a one-eyed man offered them vodka and a proposition.
“What’s he saying?” Goblin asked, meaning the midget.
“He says One-Eye wants to rob that liquor store.”
Declining both drink and crime, Goblin and Stray hung around long enough to see the banditos walk into the liquor store, walk back out, and immediately be swarmed by a dozen cops.
By morning, the travelers had panhandled change for bus fare from Perris to Riverside and on to Colton. They took a long, miserable hike in 110-degree heat to the yard, stopping only at a grocery store for wine.
In Colton yard, standing alongside a railroad boxcar for the first time, Goblin leaned back to see the roofline. From a distance, a boxcar might look like part of your electric train set, but up close it’s a freakin’ building. It can be twelve feet high set on wheels three feet tall standing on rails a half-foot aboveground. It can be sixty feet long and ten feet wide. Sometimes it weighs three hundred thousand pounds, maybe five hundred thousand pounds loaded.
Goblin said, “Holy shit.”
Stray said, “Come over here.”
She led him to a grain car. A grainer is nearly as tall as a boxcar but less terrifying because it has a flat landing at its ends, “porches,” each with enough room for a person, a backpack, and a dog. Above the porch, cut into a wall, is a round hole. A rider can crawl in there and escape some of the wind and weather and relentless thunder of a moving freight train.
On that grainer, Stray and Jared caught a short ride to a gully south of Los Angeles where, under a bridge, they met up with Booze Cop and one of Stray’s ex–road dogs, a heroin-addicted eccentric called Feral.
The four rode to Barstow, sharing two half-gallons of vodka that encouraged them to scratch tattoos into their arms and argue about whose was prettiest. At sunset they crawled through a culvert, keeping in mind that Barstow was a “hot” yard full of “bulls”—the railroad security officers charged with enforcing federal laws against train-hopping. Their presence demanded the travelers be, in Stray’s words, “considerably ninja.” She explained: “We gotta jump about twenty strings of cars now without being seen by man or animal.” Once they had squeezed between cars and pulled themselves over the bulky couplings that connected them, the ninjas settled onto another grainer porch. They waited. Then they heard the hiss of air engaging the train’s brakes before the line of cars jerked into motion.
The ninjas slept through San Bernardino and woke up in Vernon.
Goblin didn’t know shit about what he was getting into. I told him the facts of life as a train-hopper. The first year it’s an Adventure. Strange places and strange people. Like this, here we are in the worst stinking shithole in the country. Vernon, California. It’s almost as bad as Gary, Indiana. They’ve got these meat-rendering plants with animal carcasses lying around rotting and spoiled.
I already see that Goblin is different from most travelin’ kids. He sure as hell isn’t interested in being Billy Badass and one-upping people. Kid’s set in his ways, wanted nothing but a good time. Honestly, I love him. This afternoon he jumped over a railing and beat a dude’s ass for calling me a dirty whore for digging through his ashtray. So we’re not even really started yet and he’s showing me some balls.
Off the grainer at Vernon, we walked to City of Industry, a long walk, one side of LA to the other. Walked through Chinatown and East LA, slept in some park, and woke up to sprinklers soaking us. Goblin screamed like a little girl.
- Powerful and deeply affecting.—Booklist, starred review
- Leave Out the Tragic Parts is an emotional and psychological voyage into the psyche of a grief-stricken grandfather…. it must have required a great amount of courage and intestinal fortitude on the part of the writer...a home run.—New York Journal of Books
- A love letter. . . Kindred writes with an impressive combination of journalistic detachment and grandfatherly love . . .He approaches a difficult story with love and curiosity rather than sentimentality.—Kirkus Reviews
- Leave Out the Tragic Parts serves as both an insightful look into the transient world of freewheeling American drifters while also being a vulnerable and open exploration of what it means to be a family watching a loved one struggling with addiction. Kindred’s frequent thoughts of ‘what if?’ will resonate with many.—Library Journal
- The title of Dave Kindred's astonishing book is precisely what he did not do. A world-class reporter used every ounce of his journalistic skills to investigate a story-the life and death of a beloved grandchild-that most of us would find daunting. But Kindred tells the story truly and with love.—David Maraniss, author of A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father
- Dave Kindred's Leave Out the Tragic Parts is a searing, terrifying, and brilliantly written book that, when I began reading one night, I couldn't put down. As a tireless researcher devoted to finding and writing the unflinching truth about his beloved grandson, Kindred brings us into a fascinating, foreign world. In his remarkable journey, he explores and communicates the bafflement, desperation, and pain experienced by anyone who loves a person with addiction, and he reminds us that reading others' stories can lead to understanding, compassion, and healing. Leave Out the Tragic Parts is a godsend for every grandparent, parent, friend, spouse, and child who loves a person with addiction. It is testament to the power of love. I believe that the greatest art can come from the greatest pain and love, and this book is pure art.—David Sheff, New York Times-bestselling author of Beautiful Boy
- Keening was the sound that confronted me on the other end of the line when Dave Kindred called to say his grandson Jared had been found dead of an overdose in a flop house in Philadelphia. The resounding howl of grief, anger, and bewilderment, would not abate until Kindred turned his consummate talents and unflinching gaze on Jared's all-too-brief life and unseemly death. Maybe, just maybe, if he could tell how the beautiful blond boy in a white tuxedo became a 'traveling kid' named Goblin-a wraithlike mess of tats and vodka-who hopped trains for a living, Jared's life would have some meaning and his grandpa would find some peace. Leave Out the Tragic Parts is a rageful lullaby of love and regret and a wonder to behold.—Jane Leavy, New York Times-bestselling author of The Big Fella
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2023
- Page Count
- 256 pages